Philip Holden and Richard J. Ruppel, eds., Imperial Desire: Dissident Sexualities and Colonial Literature.
While the topics of gender, sexuality, and difference in relation to the work of Joseph Conrad have received considerable attention in journals and some broadly themed collections, there is certainly room for more books and collections of criticism to take on these topics in more breadth and detail. The present volumes, Philip Holden and Richard J. Ruppel's collection Imperial Desire and Lissa Schneider's Conrad's Narratives of Difference, offer a rich field of consideration for Conrad scholars interested in gender, sexuality, and their intersections in Conrad's choice of genre and his use of structure and colonial discourse. The three essays in the Conrad section in Imperial Desire offer perspectives on masculinity in the context of the queer undercurrents of the colonial situation, examining Conrad's resistance to and complicity with colonial hierarchies. Schneider's Narratives of Difference examines the several ways in which Conrad's deployment of feminine icons and "tricks with girls" function as narrative strategies in Conrad's writing. Both texts challenge the reader to pressure and reconsider the way gender and sexuality function in Conrad's fiction.
Imperial Desire covers a broad range of texts from Defoe to Lessing, but locates its "center of gravity" in the New Imperialism of the later nineteenth century (x). This collection profitably uses queer theory to illuminate the colonial narrative and the situation of colonizer and subject, often drawing on Homi Bhabha's work on mimicry, Eve Sedgwick's work on the homosocial and on homosexual panic, and Christopher Lane's work in The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire. (Lane also contributed an article on Mary Kingsley to this volume.) The avowed aim of the collection is to bring colonial discourse analysis and queer theory to bear on colonial texts in their specific historical context; in his coda to the volume, Philip Holden describes both colonial discourse analysis and queer theory as "emancipatory projects" that might be used, in Lane's words, to "shatter Britain's colonial legacy, once and for all" (qtd. in Holden 296). On the whole, the collection is very successful, offering an impressive variety and quality of articles; this volume is worth a perusal to anyone interested in this intersection of ideas.
The three essays in the first section of the collection, "Frontiers and Discoveries," focus on eighteenth-century authors in disparate geographical locations. Hans Turley's "The Sublimation of Desire to Apocalyptic Passion in Defoe's Crusoe Trilogy" is an examination of Daniel Defoe's work in light of homoeroticism, empire, and Crusoe's conversion to a violent and subjugating religion in the later books after Friday's death. In Turley's reading, Crusoe's ideal state on the island becomes displaced by the unruly world outside, which needs an often brutal "religious colonization" to order it (15). John C. Benyon's article on Lady Wortley Montagu's eroticized appreciation of Middle Eastern women, "Lady Wortley Montagu's Sapphic Vision," considers the dynamics of her gaze as a woman appreciating other women and her re-envisioning of the harem as a place of empowerment as well as desire. The last article in the section, Terry Goldie's "The Guise of Friendship," examines the homosocial triangle that structures the colonial story that is also considered the first Canadian novel, Wacousta or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas.
The second section, "Queering the New Imperialism," focuses on British writing, starting with Anjali Arondekar's consideration of Kipling's short fiction, "Lingering Pleasures, Perverted Texts: Colonial Desire in Kipling's Anglo-India." Arondekar examines the way in which Kipling tries to organize "centers of chaos" in the imperial situation into "contained narratives" that, he argues, remain haunted by the very fears about colonialism and eroticism that he tries to restrain (85). Christopher Lane's intriguing consideration of Victorian travel writer Mary Kingsley in "Fantasies of 'Lady Pioneers,' between Narrative and Theory" works to create a better model for examining the "women of empire" than the complicity/resistance model that is often used, one taking into account the complexity and contradiction of Kingsley's views on identity, race, and imperialism. The final essay in this section, Mark Forrester's "Redressing the Empire: Anthony Trollope and British Gender Anxiety in 'The Banks of the Jordan,'" offers a queer reading of a controversial Trollope story in which male homoeroticism is also mapped onto the landscape in ways that complicate colonial power dynamics.
Of particular interest here are the articles on Conrad in part 3, "Century's End: Conrad's Queer Indirections." Conrad is the only author to be addressed in more than one essay in the volume, looming large both in the volume and in relation to its New Imperialist "center of gravity." All three essays focusing on Conrad draw on Sedgwick's influential theories in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire as the basis for reading the bonds and tensions between men and the positioning of female characters in Conrad's narratives. Each essay offers a fresh perspective on a familiar work, attending to the fin-de-siecle context with productive results.
Tim Middleton's "From Mimicry to Menace: Conrad and Late-Victorian Masculinity" argues that The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (despite its publication in the conservative New Review) both mimics and critiques the imperialist values that the novel seems to espouse. His reading profitably connects the novel's interest in the figure of the gentleman with the contemporary trials of Oscar Wilde. Middleton notes that narcissism or "love of the same" poses a problem for patriarchies, which rely on bonds and relationships between men to function. At the end of the century, both the New Woman and the "invert" threaten existing models of masculinity; thus, the "idealization of the gentleman was central to both the new imperialism's construction of national identity along gendered lines and its rigorous policing of the border between the homosocial and homosexual" (137). The fact that Conrad wrote a novel populated with male characters for this conservative journal in the aftermath of the Wilde affair would seem to indicate a conservative stance on gender that Middleton effectively argues is troubled by the dialogism of the novel itself. Using Bhabha's discussion of the "menace of mimicry" from The Location of Culture, Middleton argues that the novel uses a "subtle parodic strategy" that "via its narrator mimics both the jingoistic class and racial hatreds and the narrow constructions of English masculinity promoted by the Henley set [editor of the New Review] in order to deconstruct them" (140). Middleton points out some of the complexities of the novel's portrayals, the avowedly masculine Singleton's reading of Pelham and the discussion of gentlemen's characteristics (including their backsides among others), that link them to a homosexual discourse. The decline of manhood seen in both the dandy and the working-class hooligan can be linked to questions about imperial fitness to rule. Though Wait and Donkin might be seen as conservative figures in the novel, functioning as a warning about the potential for "debilitated manhood"(145), Middleton develops the interesting possibility that Conrad is depicting contemporary social fears about male friendship in the Wildean era, since the aftermath of the trials would necessarily make this a self-conscious issue. Middleton reads Wait as an "affront to the narrator's standards of manliness" (146) who destabilizes the standards and typical behavior of the crew and exposes the erotic underpinnings of the homosocial economy onboard ship. In this, Middleton argues that The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is much more than an uncomplicated reiteration of the values of the New Review: returning to Bhabha, the novel menaces the values it copies. Middleton's analysis and his historical contextualization of masculinity during the writing and publication of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" offer a rich reconsideration of the portrayal of manhood and its frame of reference in the novel.
The second article on Conrad, Richard J. Ruppel's "'Girl! What? Did I Mention a Girl?' The Economy of Desire in Heart of Darkness" traces and examines the homoerotic subtexts of Heart of Darkness. Ruppel, one of the editors of this collection, offers readings of the novella that attempt to escape what he calls the heterosexual matrix often present in Conrad criticism, pressuring the language and disjunctures in the text of Heart of Darkness with interesting results. Ruppel notes that current understanding of homosexuality is anachronistic in Conrad, but demonstrates that homosocial and queer or homoerotic relationships play a consistent, underlying part in the novel. He addresses the paradoxical nature of women's position in the novel: "On the literal level, they have no power. On the symbolic level, they have all the power" (158). In Ruppel's reading, women represent domestic values and morality, disrupting homosocial relationships, and often provoking men's behavior, but rarely their desire. The machinations of women, even innocent ones like Marlow's aunt, prove dangerous, even sinister, with far-reaching consequences. Ruppel contrasts women's positioning with the erotic attachments between men in the novella. The Russian harlequin behaves like a devoted, feminized lover to Kurtz, attending to his own appearance, and defending his relationship with Kurtz to Marlow, "It isn't what you think" (Ruppel 159). Marlow himself has an impassioned and excessive response to Kurtz, and his motivations for obsessively searching for Kurtz may be augmented by the homoerotic subtext of Heart of Darkness. Ruppel reads two passages where the audience on the Nellie appears to provoke a defensive response in Marlow as homosexual panic; this offers an interesting explanation for Marlow's otherwise obscure comments, an explanation that further fleshes out the ambiguous erotic relationships of the Congo. Ruppel argues that Heart of Darkness is "at war with the adventure genre right from the start," showing a fictional audience in conflict with the narrator, persistent disparagement of fellow adventurers, and an ironic treatment of imperialism that calls it into question (164-65). In its treatment of homoerotic desire, its critique of colonialism, and its hints at the possibility of comradeship with African men, the novella shows sentiments that would be profoundly troubling to a conservative audience, thus offering an ironic treatment of its own adventure genre. Ruppel's consideration is compelling in its careful reading of and thoughtful accounting for myriad moments of discomfort and disjuncture in the narrative that can be explained by the homoerotic tensions that pervade it.
In keeping with the collection's emphasis on historicizing colonial consideration, the third essay on Conrad, Sarah Cole's "Homoerotic Heroics, Domestic Discipline: Conrad and Ford's Romance" argues that, despite a lack of the formal experimentation associated with some of Ford's and Conrad's other works, Romance uses the competing conventions of the adventure tale and the love story to probe the primary themes of modernism, in particular "the problem of the male individuals' helplessness, passivity, dejection, and alienation under the regime of the modern English nation" (173). Cole starts with the self-conscious emphasis on genre that titling the novel Romance implies: the novel explores both the charged masculine eroticism of the imperial context and the "strictures of a domestic love plot" (173). In Romance, Conrad and Ford follow the trajectory of other colonial novels in presenting an exotic colonial locale that explores male eroticism within the imperial power dynamic. Though the excess of the novel and its naive narrator veers toward parody, Cole argues that the text's nostalgia for an idealized homoerotic (in this case colonial) world is sincere: in Romance, Conrad's and Ford's "idea seems to be to produce a form that they simultaneously parody and embody, a familiar modernist move" (181). Cole's essay convincingly develops the critique of capitalism operating throughout the novel in its idealization of the past feudal system, its depiction of labor as "futile and emasculating" (175), and its depiction of Kemp's time in prison in England as a brutalizing example of state power operating in opposition to the romance of the narrative in the colony. The end of the novel leaves Kemp to feebly protest the operation of state power that he is subject to: "To be a man is not so much to range heroically over the national geography, nor to narrate the self in compelling language, but to suffer complacently at the hands of the state ..." (186). His marriage, and thus embrace of heterosexual life, after the homoerotic tensions of colonial life are figured as a death in the novel, but this "death" is necessary for the transition to the kind of English manhood that we find at the end of the novel. Cole argues that both narratives exclude the participation of Seraphina, Kemp's wife: she has gone from a marker of the ties between men in the feudal colonial environment to an equally circumscribed role, that of modern domestic woman in the anti-individualist, capitalist environment of England at the end of the novel. Cole's consideration of the types of masculinity evident in the generic conventions that Conrad and Ford reference in Romance produces a rich and interesting examination of the novel, effectively accounting for some of the incongruities of a problematic and interesting text. Her reading of the novel as an exploration of the modern male subject and the capitalist mechanisms that destroy "outdated literary forms" and the remnants of male individuality is particularly thoughtful and innovative.
The final section of essays in Imperial Desire, "Other Colonialisms," looks at twentieth-century writing from a variety of authors and viewpoints, from Forster and Buchan to Russian author Mikhail Kuzman and Doris Lessing. Lois Cucullu's interesting reading of Howards End in "'Only Cathect': Queer Heirs and Narrative Desires in Howards End" argues that E. M. Forster displaces bourgeois, heterosexual domesticity in the novel, bringing about "a newly grounded masculine subject, and, even more, a queered metropolitan subject" (197). In her essay on John Buchan's Prester John, Maria Davidis's "'Unarm, Eros!' Adventure, Homoeroticism, and Divine Order in Prester John" looks at the way Buchan works against contemporary ambivalence about empire or hostility to it by idealizing a colonial environment that serves as an antidote to "the perceived degeneracy of British men" (223), though the colonial setting he presents is suffused with homosocial relationships and homoerotic tensions. Denis Denisoff's "Many Lips Will I Kiss: The Queer Foreplay of 'the East' in Russian Aestheticism" connects Mikhail Kuzmin's novel Wings and his poetry in Alexandrian Songs, examining the way the author develops the identity of Russian aesthetes in light of the Orientalist orientation of aestheticism. The final essay in this section, Joseph A. Boone's "Sex/Race Wars on the Frontier: Homosexuality and Colonialism in The Golden Notebook," is a powerful reconsideration of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Boone shows how the heroine's consciousness of her oppression as a white woman is shaped by her experiences in colonial Southern Rhodesia, demonstrating the way her homosexual panic both represents her discomfort with her own femininity and compromises the novel's critique of other kinds of oppression. In addition, I recommend editor Philip Holden's coda, "Rethinking Colonial Discourse Analysis and Queer Studies," which offers an interesting and capable retrospective consideration of these fields together with thought-provoking reflections on future work in this area.
Schneider's Conrad's Narratives of Difference: Not Exactly Tales for Boys, published in the "Studies in Major Literary Authors: Outstanding Dissertations" series from Routledge, probes the gender politics that have become a site of significant interest in current Conrad scholarship. This volume is certainly a worthwhile dissertation project, a capable assimilation of scholarship and historical and biographical information about Conrad that draws together diverse and useful sources on Conrad and gender. While she sums up and brings together existing critical assessments to provide a helpful consideration of Conrad's textual gender politics throughout the volume, Schneider is at her best with her probing reconsideration of complex, resonating Conrad images, moving nimbly between narratives, contextual information, and Conrad's claims about his own work. Schneider takes Conrad's reputation as a writer of adventure stories or "tales for boys" as a starting point for her consideration, noting that these tales for boys are really infused with a "thematics of gender" that complicates the apparent genre of the masculine adventure narrative (3). Schneider defines her project in terms of gender, the presence of the feminine that is continually present in Conrad's seemingly masculine narratives through representations of women and references to feminine generic forms like the romance. She begins her introduction with Conrad's deliberate skewing of the chivalric ideal, an intriguing image from Heart of Darkness. Schneider notes the courtly motif in the narrative's end, "Marlow's courtly desire to find and rescue a princess ultimately leads him to the Intended's door, but in the end he chooses to leave the actual woman under the spell of her enchantment" (3). But Kurtz has earlier proved an "enchanted princess" himself in Marlow's parlance, a complication that demonstrates the complexity of gendered images, displacements, and narrative techniques in Conrad's work (3). Schneider extends this consideration of the feminine to encompass other kinds of difference, particularly race, in those texts that do not feature female characters or images prominently, since Conrad employs some of the same narrative strategies in these texts. Schneider's volume draws on feminist, gender, psychoanalytic, and historicist criticism to assess and compare Conrad's repeated deployment of similar narrative strategies and figures.
In her first chapter, "Iconography and the Feminine Ideal: Torches, Blindfolds, and the 'true light of femininity' in Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Rescue, and 'The Return,'" Schneider explores the significance of Kurtz's "small sketch in oils," the portrait of a blinded woman carrying a light from Heart of Darkness, an image that has captivated critics and that, she argues, is reflected in many other, similar images in Conrad's fiction. Versions of this icon, "symptomatic refigurations of allegorical feminine imagery" (4), appear in Lord Jim, The Rescue, and "The Return," and Schneider explains that, through the repetition of the image, "the relation between blindness and light is somehow bound up with women and femininity" (10). Like Richard Ruppel in his essay on Heart of Darkness, Schneider probes the "impossible" dual positioning of women as both "potent and powerless" in Conrad (4). Schneider's examination of the blinded torch-bearing woman figures as one of the "fetishistic sources of a redeeming light" which juxtaposes icons of liberty and justice is a particularly insightful reading of this image (15-17). Both Jewel in Lord Jim and Edith in The Rescue are literally torchbearers who cast their torches away with different immediate intentions, but the same ultimate desire "to be seen as women, not impossible ideology made incarnate" (26). Even the Intended, who remains carrying her figurative torch at the end of Heart of Darkness, disappoints Marlow in her inability to fulfill the impossible feminine ideal. Schneider explains this ironic treatment of men's idealism with an insightful connection to Michaelis's remark in The Secret Agent, "All idealization makes life poorer. To beautify is to take away its character of complexity--it is to destroy it" (qtd. in Schneider 31). Conrad's deployment of this image has the effect of critiquing the idealized version of difference that the icons perpetuate, which works against stereotypical attitudes about women.
Schneider's second chapter: "Plots and Performance: Conrad's 'tricks with girls' in 'Freya of the Seven Isles,' Under Western Eyes, An Outcast of the Islands, and The Rescue," uses Conrad's own defense of his technique and content to develop an illuminating analysis of the gender dynamics in these narratives. Schneider returns to Conrad's correspondence with Garnett and his phrase about "The Secret Sharer": "No damned tricks with girls there." Schneider realizes the potential of this phrase as a touchstone for examining Conrad's narrative strategies, arguing that, in most Conrad texts, he uses "tricks with girls" to add conflict and action to the narrative. According to Schneider, "[F]emininity serves as a structuring device that lends coherence and closure to his tales while simultaneously proving a site of rupture or disjunction" (36). In her detailed discussion of Under Western Eyes, Schneider examines Conrad's own reductive contention that Nathalie Halden was a "pivot for the action to turn on," a "mere peg" (qtd. in Schneider 40). This status reduces her to a symbolic, static function, making her more icon than character. Conrad offers a plot that follows all of the dictates of tragic drama, but filtering it through its frame story has the effect of making the reader conscious of his or her own voyeurism: "we see ourselves caught in the act of looking" (44). The narrator's interested, voyeuristic involvement with the plot illuminates our own position as readers and has the effect of distracting the reader from the "political and romantic details" of the narrative towards "unsettling speculation about why we read and write stories" (45). In An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad also eventually decided to include a woman, Aissa, as a narrative pivot in what Schneider argues is a return to a classical dramatic climax. Schneider uses Conrad's correspondence to demonstrate that he also inserted female characters into The Rescue (originally The Rescuer) as a way to move the plot, then expanded them and set them in opposition to solve narrative problems. The substantial historical and textual evidence makes this a convincing reading; she successfully argues that these "tricks with girls" used as structuring devices materially change the stories' focus, making women integral to the narratives.
"Colonial Occupations: Race and Gender in 'An Outpost of Progress' and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus,'" Schneider's third chapter, examines the ways in which, in "An Outpost of Progress" and The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Conrad uses plots involving racial difference in much the same way as "tricks with girls" in some of his other fiction, "in essence, exploiting the same oppositional strategy or structure that Conrad used in previous works" (64). In "An Outpost of Progress," Conrad uses Henry Price as another narrative "pivot" that functions as an unchanging foil for the white characters, two Belgians remarkable for their laziness and lack of ability. Schneider argues that Conrad imposes "gender issues onto racial conflict," using Victorian gender stereotypes about these weak and feminized men to make them less sympathetic to readers (67). Henry Price, the savvy African who is the third member of their colonial staff, trades the African station workers, already enslaved by the company, for ivory, to the horror of the Belgians, whose discomfort ultimately results in their murder-suicide. Schneider's reading emphasizes the way that Conrad's focus on "conflicting Victorian values (the importance of class distinctions coupled with strong nationalism and belief in democratic meritocracy)" undermines "simple dualisms based on race" and satirizes European pretensions to superiority over Africans like Price (71). Her reading of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" in the same chapter examines the way in which James Wait, feminized because of his illness as well as his racial difference, distracts the sailors from their allegiance to their "absolute feminine ideal," the ship, and destabilizes gender roles on the Narcissus as the sailors come to be described in feminized terms (76). Schneider notes that Conrad figures death as masculine and the homoerotic tensions that develop on board ship are displaced on to Wait's relationship with what the narrator calls his accomplice, death (79). Perpetuating the pretense that Wait is not really dying comes to be a fight against feminization on the part of the crew; ultimately, Wait has turned the tables on the racist crew, "invert[ing] the accepted social order" (83). Schneider cites various contemporary critics' complaints about the lack of petticoats and the lack of plot in The Nigger of the "Narcissus"; acknowledging their puzzlement about the lack of women and thus romance, she makes the interesting argument that the novel is indeed a love story after all, demonstrating the crew's affection for Wait and for the ship itself.
Schneider's final chapter, "Politics in the House: Genre, Narrative, and the Domestic Drama in The Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim," interweaves Conrad texts, reading them in dialogue, though The Secret Agent is the true subject of the chapter, structuring the discussion. Schneider begins with the Assistant Commissioner's dismissive comment to Sir Ethelred, "From a certain point of view, we are in the presence of a domestic drama" (Conrad qtd. in Schneider 91). She effectively considers Conrad's persistent play of language, teasing out repetitions and resonances in the novel. Verloc and many of the other male characters are really aligned with the protection of the domestic and the country itself, both the house and the house of state. Quoting Conrad, Schneider explains, "Obfuscating the connection between the women's world of 'household and schoolroom' and 'political institutions' becomes part of 'the game'" (95). In Schneider's reading, the torn scrap of calico found on Stevie's body that served as an address label for him becomes a powerful symbol for the insertion of the domestic, home and hearth, into political events, and the power to reveal or suppress the label and the information it represents becomes a point that is highly contested in the novel. The novel depicts men that are in "harness" to women, one that both "chafes and supports" (105) while men maintain the delusion that they are free agents. Women, especially in the person of the "great lady," come to represent the security of the state; she is not moved to fear by Vladimir's purposeful talk. The words of the title are redefined as they conceal and reveal the subversive story of Winnie Verloc, the murderess who has been suppressing the idea of her awful marriage bargain her whole life. As with Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent leaves one man in possession of the full story, not Marlow's hearer in this case, but Ossipon, privileged to see the cost of men's domestic refuge. Schneider ends with the argument that, by the end of The Secret Agent, men must accept either "feminization" or "chaos and nihilism" (120). Schneider's analysis, ranging from gender theory to psychoanalysis, offers a subtle reading of the images and details that define the domestic drama in The Secret Agent. Throughout Conrad's Narratives of Difference, Schneider demonstrates that these adventure narratives and "tales for boys" are infused with and defined by femininity in various forms. This volume sustains a thoughtful analysis of the effects of gender on structure throughout Conrad's work, effectively exploring both Conrad's deployment of specific images and his "tricks with girls" in plotting the narrative and giving it momentum.
ELLEN BURTON HARRINGTON
University of South Alabama
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|Title Annotation:||Conrad's Narratives of Difference: Not Exactly Tales for Boys|
|Author:||Harrington, Ellen Burton|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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